News & Blog

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About: Adam Russo is a lifelong learner who is deeply rooted in the West Michigan communications community. As the owner of public relations firm COM 616, his professional experience includes working with global brands like Haworth and Amway, regional companies like Varnum and Comcast, as well as nonprofits like the Mosaic Film Experience and Sunset Retirement Communities. Outside of the office, Adam is committed to community service and fitness. He currently serves as an executive board member for the Literacy Center of West Michigan, a board member for Affinity Mentoring, an ambassador for the Grand Rapids Chamber, and a member of the Kent County Prevention Coalition. He is also the former president for the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America. Adam is a two-time Grand Rapids Business Journal “40 Under 40” honoree and a two-time finalist for the Grand Rapids Chamber’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He also has served as an adjunct public relations professor at his alma mater Grand Valley State University.

Written by Sara Miller, ATP Coordinator

At age 17, Rut left her home in rural Guatemala and made her way over 2,500 miles to Grand Rapids, Michigan. She had two brothers here, who wanted her to come to the U.S. to better her English skills and further her education. And, though it hasn’t been easy, Rut is doing just that. She had taken two English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at GRCC and, although the pandemic slowed down her plans, she will start her final English prerequisite class in May. In the fall, she will begin her education as a graphic designer!

About: Since 2005, Melissa has provided Baker Holtz clients with income tax compliance and consulting services, with a specialization in the estates and trusts. She is currently the Tax Principal of the firm. Melissa completed her BBA in Accounting and Finance at Grand Valley State University in 2004 and received her Master of Science in Accounting a year later.  While attending GVSU, she was a member of Beta Alpha Psi, an accounting honors society. She received her CPA license in 2006.

About: Jim Ayres is a business executive and leadership consultant working with global clients and nonprofits.  Jim is a coach for individuals and organizations on strategic planning, development, project management and cultural diversity. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Biology/Biological Sciences from Grand Valley State University and his MBA from Davenport University. Prior to his retirement from Amway at the conclusion of 2020, Jim led all business operations for Amway North America, with a business volume exceeding $1 billion. In his 41 years at Amway, Jim also held leadership positions in Global Research and Development, Quality Assurance, and Scientific Regulatory Affairs. He has extensive experience in Global business, leading Global teams, and Global diversity in business.

About: Win Irwin graduated from Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1969. He spent five years teaching history and government at Morgan Park Academy in Chicago, Illinois. He spent one year as a teaching tennis professional/manager before joining Irwin Seating Company. Win has been at Irwin Seating Company for 43 years and has worked as a Quality Control Person, Wood Plant Superintendent, Education Sales Manager, Factory Plant Superintendent, Vice President of Manufacturing, and President & CEO.

Written by Autumn Jackson, ATP Coordinator

Fung came to Michigan as a refugee in 2012. Having studied some English in school in Burma, she had learned the basics of the language, but found it difficult to understand people hereAfter seeing her husband succeed in our programs, she came to the Literacy Center in 2019. She was eager to improve her speaking and writing skills and gain enough confidence with her English to support her children in school. Fung was soon paired with a tutor, Sarabeth.

About me: My name is Sara Miller, and I’ve worked as a coordinator for the Adult Tutoring Program for about six months. In 2006, I moved to Taiwan to teach English as a second language and discovered I loved it! Since then, I’ve taught in several different countries including Malta, Turkey, Mexico, and Vietnam, and earned an MA in curriculum and instruction of English as a second language. I came back to the US in 2019 and am enjoying being close to family and old friends.

Written by Chad Patton, Director of Customized Workplace English

Uwamahoro, a Congolese refugee who came to the United States by way of Uganda, had two goals when she started at the Literacy Center: learn English and become a citizen. In fact, it wasn’t very long after Uwamahoro and her family—including her mother, brother, niece, and nephew—arrived in Grand Rapids that Uwamahoro knew she wanted to be a citizen.

Tommy Allen’s leadership has left its imprint throughout our community. As an artist, a writer, a content creator, a volunteer, and an activist, Tommy has made it his mission to be deeply engaged in some of the most important work in our community. 

Mark Peters has quietly but significantly established a new ethic on how to conduct business. As President and CEO of Butterball Farms, Inc. and co-founder of The Source, Mark recognized that business would thrive if employers took an active role in removing barriers for their employees. 

Marielle Levert, our 2021 recipient of the Marshall Pitler Volunteer of the Year Award, brings a unique perspective to her tutoring experience with the Literacy Center. In 2015, she and her family moved to Grand Rapids from their native Netherlands. Although she was a fluent English speaker, Marielle could relate our learners’ challenges of adapting to the language and customs of a new country. She set to work immediately connecting with other ex-patriots and English language learners in her adopted home. 

Written by Sara Miller, ATP Coordinator

For many, 2020 was a year of adaptation. For Lorena, it was no different. Unable to meet in person with her tutor, Steff, the pair turned to meeting virtually. But that came with its own challenges; Lorena had rarely used a computer until now. Although she was reluctant, she knew that in order to keep meeting she would have to do her best. Over the next few months they tackled the basics and mastered Zoom meetings together. One major challenge remained: email. 

About: Autumn joined the Literacy Center as a coordinator for the Adult Tutoring Program in October 2020. After completing a bachelor’s in English Language & Literature at Grand Valley State University, she began her career as an English teacher in Quito, Ecuador. She later earned a master’s in TESOL at Illinois State University and taught in Indonesia with the English Language Fellowship Program. She worked with a literacy council in Madison, Wisconsin for five years before moving back to her home state of Michigan.

About: Leandra is from the Dominican Republic, but lived in the United States approximately 8 years prior to relocating to Grand Rapids. Leandra received a Bachelor Degree in Psychology and a Master’s Psychological Counseling while living in the Dominican Republic. In January 2018, she entered the Family Literacy Program as a learner who wanted to improve her English proficiency. After reaching proficient levels at the North Godwin class, she was encouraged to apply for the AmeriCorps position and ended up joining the AmeriCorps team as a Learner Support Advocate. In August of the same year, Leandra was hired as the first permanent Program Assistant for the Family Literacy Team.

The Literacy Center of West Michigan has been named as a finalist in the U.S. Department of Education’s $750,000 Rethink Adult Education Challenge, a national competition to advance pre-apprenticeship programs. The organization is one of five finalists from Michigan and the only one from outside metro Detroit. The Literacy Center’s proposal creates a career pathway for Latinas to enter the mechanical, electrical and plumbing trades by providing English instruction, workplace readiness and skills training.   

About: Yilin Wendland-Liu is the new director of the Adult Tutoring Program. She joined the Literacy Center of West Michigan on August 24, 2020. Before her new role as the ATP director, she taught at Grand Valley State University as a visiting professor for three years and served as the Grand Rapids Chinese Language School Principal for two and a half years. Yilin currently serves on the Grand Rapids International Network Committee (GRIN) and Grand Rapids Community Foundation Scholarship Selection Committee. 

About: Laurie Zarzecki Emelander has been with the Literacy Center since 1994 and is the Finance Director. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Aquinas College with a double major of Business Administration and Religious Studies. Laurie represents the Literacy Center and other West Michigan nonprofit organizations on the statewide 501 Alliance Board of Directors. With her second major, she volunteers as an adult catechist and is on the Pastoral Council at her church.

Written by Carrie Roper, IET Coordinator

Sonia moved to West Michigan from her native Mexico in 2019, and found the Literacy Center soon thereafter. She wanted to practice her English to realize her goal of becoming a volunteer in the community. When Sonia tested too high for the Literacy Center’s services, she was referred to the drop-in English class we hosted at West Michigan Works.

About Me: My name is Mike Nassar, and I am in my fifth year as Director of the Community Literacy Initiative at LCWM. Prior to coming to the Literacy Center, I was privileged to spend over thirty years in public education as a teacher, principal, and leadership coach. I also currently work with elementary student teachers as a Field Coordinator at Grand Valley State University.

About: Libby Wahlstrom is a fundraising professional with 15 years of experience in the field. She began her career at an affordable housing nonprofit in Berkeley, CA before moving to Habitat for Humanity San Francisco and then on to her alma mater, Albion College. In 2012, Libby returned to her hometown of Grand Rapids to take the position of Development Director at the Literacy Center of West Michigan. In her role at the Literacy Center, Libby directs all of the fundraising and communication efforts for the organization. Libby graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BA in History and Women’s Studies from Albion College.

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